A Loud Week in Review…

As I type these words, I’m sitting on the couch in my living room with just enough energy to move my fingers across the keyboard.  I’ve spent the last 7 days in Kilmarnock, VA with 50 middle schoolers, 10 high school student leaders, and 10 adult leaders.  The 70 of us had set out for our annual adventure to see how many people in that region we could serve, love, and share God’s grace with.

I’d like to share some of my experiences and thoughts on what was most definitely a remarkable week.  We promote this week-long experience each year as “the best week you’ll have all summer”, but even that claim was outdone when one of our middle school girls came to me toward the end of the week and said, “Jerry, this is the best week of my life!”

We started the week with the plan, supplies, and manpower to attack 5 different projects at 5 different homes throughout Kilmarnock and neighboring towns.  We were reroofing 3 houses, painting the outside of one house, and repairing an unsafe and dilapidated front porch and back deck of another house.  But we ended up adding another reroof job and even throwing in the painting of an entire side of the very large dining hall of the camp we stayed at; a project that served as a kind of “thanks” to our hosts.

I’m usually serving as a leader on one of the worksites, and so am dedicated to that one location all week.  But this year I was given the opportunity to “float” between all the various locations in order to visit, bring needed supplies, and encourage those at each site.  So I spent the lion’s share of my time this past week behind the wheel of a sturdy, blue pick-up truck.  I loved seeing every work crew every day and the progress being made.

The first thing I noticed was common among nearly all the work crews.  There are some middle school students who seem to get right to work when a task is in front of them and there are those who seem to avoid work for as long as possible.  We call it “work ethic” and it describes which side a person is on.  Some seemed to not be able to get enough of the progress and momentum hard work brings, and some were completely content to sit and watch the progress happen at the hands of others.  What creates a good work ethic in a student has a large part to do with upbringing and parental example.  Not exclusively however, because I know many of the students’ parents and while I know them to be extremely hard workers their kids are still exhibiting the qualities of a loafer.  I’m glad to say though that this is was by far the exception rather than the rule.  The vast majority of our students were eager to serve the needs of others; even total strangers as was the case this past week.  And it was incredible to watch.

When we returned to camp mid- to late-afternoon each day, we gave students some downtime to rest, swim, or play.  Our expansive camp was equipped with a large in-ground pool, and is located on an inlet with a large dock where students could fish or just hang their feet over the edge and enjoy the breeze.

After dinner each night we had a worship service that included a time of “bragging” students could do on each other.  This is a time when any student or leader could share something they saw in another person that day; something that encouraged them or blessed them.  The only rule: you can’t brag on yourself.

After bragging time, we got into some worship singing and you simply haven’t lived until you’ve been in a large room with 50 middle schoolers singing praise to Jesus literally at the top of their lungs.  In fact, their favorite song to sing last week was a song by a band named “Starfield” called…you guessed it…”At the top of our lungs!”  Here’s a taste of that here…

After some time of singing, I was humbled and amazed to be used to deliver God’s Word to the students.  This week of messages has been unlike most that I’ve delivered.  Whereas I would normally have a handful of pages of typed notes to keep me on track with what I had prepared, my preparation for these messages consisted of prayer and nothing more than a few words scribbled on a legal pad.  Based on the freedom this approach offered me, I may never go back.

Monday night: We looked at the 2 men crucified on either side of Jesus and saw in them 2 distinct choices we can make in regards to the cross: defiance or reliance?  (Luke 23)

Tuesday night: We discussed the temporary condition of everything we see and conversely the eternal condition of all that is invisible.  (2 Cor. 4:18)  Then we decided if we’ll put more investment in the “pinky nail” thickness of this life or the unending line of eternity.

Wednesday night: We took a look at Peter.  Peter was a loud-mouth who’d often speak before thinking.  We looked at several instances between he and Jesus, but focused on Jesus’ question of Peter (and us): “Do you love me?” (John 21)

Thursday night: I wanted to attack the “critically incomplete” image that most of us have of Jesus.  Think of Jesus and you’ll likely have mental pictures of a fair-skinned, hair-flowing, blue-eyed, white robe-wearing, baby blue Miss America sash-sporting, twinkle-in-his-eye Jesus.  So we took a look at several instances when Jesus went ballistic.  Through them all, we learned about “the other side of Jesus”.  Needless to say, I had a roomful of middle schoolers who were shocked at what they heard as God blew up their view of a mind-mannered, mamsy-pamsy, milk-toast Jesus and replaced it with a wild-eyed Messiah worthy of their everything as He calls them into adventurous living.

On Friday night, I had felt unmistakably that God has put a message on my heart to share.  However, I was also least confident of how the passage I was speaking on was going to connect in any way with middle schoolers.  Even as I began sharing the message, I felt (humanly speaking) like this one might actually end up being a “dud”.  I should have remembered that God doesn’t really care what I think He can do.  He took this message and used it to pierce the hearts of so many students and before I knew it the room was filled with students literally standing to their feet in proclamation that their decision is to live louder and louder lives that scream the love of God to the world around them; that they were going to live free from what the world says they’re worth and instead stand on the truth of what God says.  Students moved around the room, gathering in clusters with leaders they love and who love them to pray together and cement their commitments.  Then they began to gather with each other and pray in groups all around the room.  Some prayed aloud while others wept at the undeniable presence of God’s Spirit.  Our high school student leaders took every opportunity to pray with the middle schoolers who they had spent the week loving and investing in.  Others just sat in amazement at what was going on around them.  No matter what an individual’s response to God that night, no one could deny it: God had made Himself evident.  Even I couldn’t have guessed that God would have done what He did that night, especially given the passage He had laid on my heart to share: The stoning of Stephen (Acts 7).

Saturday we ended the week of messages by focusing on the utter freedom we have in Christ.  That all of us were sitting on death row, waiting for our turn on the gurney when Jesus walked the hall to our cell, key in hand and freedom from it all as a gift to us.  As I shared “Christians are the only people on earth who have absolutely nothing to fear!”  It is us who should live as the most hysterical and hilarious people on the planet!  I used Romans 8:1 as a starting point and then went to 2 Cor. 3:17, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”, 1 Peter 2:16, “Live as free people…live as God’s slaves”, and Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom Christ has set us free!”  I believe many students felt chains falling off their hands and feet that night.

But I’ve always believed that while the success of a work site on a mission trip is one thing, the success of the mission trip overall is quite another.  We can all see when the last shingle on a roof is nailed down.  We can all see when the last brush stroke on a painted house is made.  But when it comes to lasting impact, we must trust God’s Spirit to connect the dots between there and here.  Even having given students follow-up devotions and things to do once they return home, we have to trust God to continue His work in their hearts as we continue to love them unconditionally with His love.

The theme of our week away was “Live Love Louder”, and I pray and hope that this is precisely what we’ll all do after having gone through this experience together.  That we would live unashamed lives of the loud kind of love that God gives to every one of us.

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Marriage

I’ve been to 2 weddings in 2 weeks.  And all 4 people involved have been through and have come out of the student ministry I’ve been leading for nearly 7 years.  As a student ministry pastor, its a joyous thing to watch teenagers transform into young adults and step into the next part of their lives that God has prepared for them.  And these 2 weddings were especially sweet to attend because all 4 students were also in my weekly small group Bible study.  As I watched them at their respective altars; vowing before God, each other, and those watching to serve, love, honor, and cherish each other–I had memories of discussions, questions, prayers, conversations, outings, and laughter with all of them running through my mind.  And I can’t lie: I cried too.

Whenever I attend a wedding, I also flash back to my own wedding.  At the ripe young age of 21, I and my bride stood before God and made the covenant commitment to one another and to Him that we’d seek Him and serve each other above all else.  And if you know me at all, you know that that decision is second only to my decision to follow Christ as the greatest decision I’ve ever made.  Truly, my wife is an non-stop picture of God’s grace: getting what I absolutely do not deserve, but have because of the lavish love of my Heavenly Father.  I look at her everyday and see the goodness of the Lord wrapped up in a package that I affectionately refer to as “The Hotness”.  (She hates that name.)

And because of that truth, I’d hope that if you know me, you know me as one of the most happily married men you’ve come across.  More than that, I’d hope that that’s how my wife sees me.  And I suppose my daily life is quite wrapped up in showing that to anyone who cares to notice.  I once heard this piece of advice in how to affair-proof your marriage: “Make your marriage so amazing that your spouse would have to be crazy to look anywhere else.”  Sounds nice, right?  But how?  Is there a formula to follow?  Well, I don’t think formula is the right word but I do think and have seen that there are some pretty obvious principles anyone can follow to strengthen the marriage they’ve got.  And at the risk of repeating age-old advice, I’d like to toss a few out there.

1. I can’t think of any better preventive medicine for a successful marriage than successful communication.  

Non-verbal: We’re told by sociologists that the majority of our communication is actually non-verbal.  So, things like a smile when your spouse enters the room, an out-of-the blue wink at an unexpected moment, a simple “I love you” note left in an inconspicuous spot, a for-no-reason-whatsoever hug, or a loving pat on their behind as you walk by–any and all of these can clearly communicate your thoughts without saying a word.  And they are peppered throughout my everyday.

Verbal: Problems arise from things like under-communication, hurtful communication, and miscommunication.  Like most guys, I’m most often guilty of under-communication.  There’s a terrible feeling in my stomach when I hear the words from my wife, “I didn’t know about that.”  Again, studies show that women use far more words on a daily basis than men do.  In short, women usually need to hear more words than men do.  No secret there.  But knowing something and making necessary changes to address it are two different things, right guys?  Case in point: a very common occurrence is for my wife to ask me, “how did your day at work go?”  My common response is “It was good.”  I just gave her a 3-word answer when she’s probably looking for a 3,000-word answer.  I answer the question with a summation of my day overall, when she wants to know about every conversation with every person I talked to, what we talked about, how I felt about it, what I did as a result, what I ate for lunch, if I liked it, and how many times I went to the bathroom.  Instead, I give her, “It was good.”  Guys, I’m not saying to act like a woman (that’d be a pretty big turn-off for your wife), but I am saying that we should recognize the need your wife has for more than she’s typically given.  If she asked for you to get her a drink of iced tea, you’d be an idiot to bring her an empty glass, right?  I mean it’s a good start but it’s only a start.   And believe me, I’m typing these words while looking in the mirror, if you know what I mean.

2. You and your spouse need consistent rest to stay fresh in your marriage.

Our culture is set against us on this one, but we also often give up too much ground in this area as we try and fit in with social norms and expectations; to the detriment of our marriage and intimacy.  Look around at the jam-packed schedules we subject ourselves to.  On top of our work schedule, we’ve got kids, helping with their homework, their interests and the schedules that come along with them, our own hobbies, and other things that vie for your time and attention.  This can all leave us running from one thing to the next with only enough energy at the end of the day to say “goodnight” to the person laying next to us (if they’re there at all).

Reversing schedule decisions is a difficult thing to do, especially if they’ve been around long enough to become the norm.  But there’s no way to sugarcoat it: if you’re serious about having sacred space in your marriage and time to give each other attention, then you very well may have to pull out of things you’d previously given yourselves too.  You’ve got to be honest when schedules start to reek havoc on your closeness as a husband and wife.  Many might say “But what about the kids? They’d be devastated not to be on swim team, dance troupe, baseball, chess squad, and student government.”  But what good is any of that if they have parents who barely know each other?  The concept of existing for your kids might sound right to some, but its anything but.  The greatest gift you can give your kids is the reality of a rock-solid marriage, and that takes a commitment to the time it takes to cultivate it.  And that will pay dividends to your family that no state championship can or will.

I’ll stop here and pick this up later, but I’d love to hear your responses.  And even if I’ve said something you completely disagree with or struggle with, feel free to share your thoughts.

A Cathartic Bump In The Night

It’s 1 a.m. The rest of my family is sound asleep.

I’m up because–well, it started in a dream.  About a half an hour ago I was having a bad dream; one of those bad dreams that ends in a loud noise that your mind swears happened outside the dream.  Jarred from my deep sleep, I woke with the very convincing notion that someone was at my front door, trying to get in.

I’m a lover, not a fighter so the only weapon I have is a fixed blade knife.  And since I’d never be willing to get close enough to any intruder to use it, its pretty well pointless.  But just in case intruders read my blog, I’ll keep its location to myself.

It turned out, no one was at my door.  So I went back to bed, only after checking around the house while swallowing my heart repeatedly.  While lying in bed wide awake, I heard another noise.  This time I KNEW I wasn’t asleep, and that this noise was definitely real.  Out of bed I sprang again, and once I again I felt the “what if someone’s really around that corner” lump in my throat.  Knifeless, I checked around each corner.  No one there.

After yet another round of noises and checks, I decided that the noise is coming from my air conditioning ducts–well, actually its coming from my house that is literally being sucked inward when my air conditioning kicks on.  Since my vent filters apparently need cleaning, its working a bit harder to do its job and therefore sucking in creaks and squeaks like I suck in my gut at the pool.  So, here I sit at my blog which feels to me much more like a long lost friend than a website address.  I decided to come down and write because quite frankly I have had a ton of things on my mind and laying in bed thinking about them doesn’t do me a bit of good.  So here I am.  Let me tell you about some thoughts I’ve been thinking recently, in no particular order, and with no particularly well-crafted substance to prop them up.

For years I’ve wanted to write a book.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me I should.  I’ve been told by many that I have a peculiar knack to be able to bring the reader into my thoughts, and that’s a sign of a talented writer that people want to read.  I want to say that I whole-heartedly would love to write a book.  I’ve actually written several in my head and am constantly starting what I think are great ideas for great books on a fairly regular basis.  But I’ve got to tell you that I view the publishing world as an incredibly confusing place.  As much as I’d love to see a book published, I haven’t the first clue as to how to go about getting a book published.  Now, I’m sure someone is sitting there reading this saying, “Oh, it’s easy. You just do this, this, and this.  That’s all.”  Well, if you’re that person, please drop me a line and tell me what those three “this’s” are because I’d gladly listen.  I once went to a seminar on getting published and left more discouraged, frustrated, and confused than when I went in.  It seemed the consensus of the published authors that led the seminar was that there really wasn’t any more room for more authors.  It felt like they were behind a huge door saying, “Sorry, its really crowded in here.  Besides, you don’t know the secret handshake. Go away now, thank you!”  So, my latest book idea is titled “This Way To The Publisher”.  The book cover would have a standard diamond-shaped road sign with a black arrow on a yellow background, but the arrow wouldn’t be pointing in any direction at all.  Maybe by writing a book about the arduous adventure of getting a book published, I’d learn along the way how to do it.

I’m afraid that “para-church” organizations are contributing to the death of the Church.  I should have warned you that I’ll be changing topics with little or no warning whatsoever.  This thought about the parachurch came to me last week when I attended a quarterly regional luncheon for Richmond-area youth leaders and out of the 30 or so people present, I was only 1 of 2 other pastors from actual churches.  Every other person there was representing some parachurch organization.  The reason I fear that the parachurch is contributing to the death of the Church isn’t the parachurch’s fault.  So if you work for such an organization, please back away from the red button in the corner you’re about to click.  Parachurch organizations are organizations designed to come alongside, support, and supplement the Church.  However, not one of them would exist had the Church stayed true to fulfilling its mission on Earth.  It hasn’t or even if it has, other pursuits have crept up and seemed like really good or noble or necessary pursuits.  Even though they were not, enough people thought they were and as a result, here they are.  Not only that but more times than not, the parachurch-to-Church connection isn’t strong enough and even if the bridge is visible, not enough people are walking across it.  Some people will contend, “But we’re all the Church.”  I don’t know how to argue that point at 1:15 a.m. except to say that I don’t think that’s true.

I’ve spent far too much time in ministry giving attention to those who make God sad rather than those who make God happy and I’m taking responsibility for this wrong decision.  Lately I have given far more mental energy toward people who’s decisions frustrate me to no end, and not nearly enough investment and attention to those who’s decisions and actions reflect the attitude of Christ.  It may seem like I’m saying I’ll only interact with Christ-like people.  That’s not what I’m trying to say at all.  It’s just that with the sheer numbers of people I see knowingly living lives contrary to the right decisions they should make, I often find myself shaking my head in disbelief.  I’m not talking about people living in ignorance or unbelief; I’m talking about disobedience despite full knowledge of the truth, and for no other reason (that I can see) than that of utter selfishness.  And don’t think I think I’ve arrived anywhere.  I certainly know my own faults, shortcomings, and sins.  (Heck, writing this paragraph might be viewed as one of them.)  But one thing I do: “forgetting what lies behind, and pressing on to what lies ahead”, I lean toward the person of Christ and in Him find rest, salvation, satisfaction, and a Lord I can gladly serve.  And I only find my greatest desire is that others would do the same, and far better than I have.

I think I’m in a time of reflection and I’m guessing that since I’m 37 years old, you might suspect that its nearing “midlife”.  I suppose it might have a hint of that, but really its not nearly that purposeful or thought-out.  Instead, I find myself to be observational–even more so than usual.  By nature, I’m a listener/processor.  I liken myself to a crock pot:  my thoughts may take a while longer, but what you get is correspondingly more flavorful.  Or so I like to think.  Along the lines of my reflections has been that my greatest fear is uselessness.  Like I said, I’m 37 years old.  I work with teenagers and have been in one way or another for nearly 20 years.  Wow.  And I’ve had 20 years worth of experiences; highs, lows, bedsides, roadsides, gravesides. Courtrooms, police cars, bedrooms, counseling sessions, housing runaways, and trying to be a soft place to land. Not only that, but speaking truth consistently, understandably, and practically.  20 years of working with, teaching, standing by, crying with, reaching out to, sharing God’s Word with, and investing in teenagers.  I’ve always wanted to do this ever since I learned that I could.  And as long as God will allow me to, I’ll keep on loving teens and their families.

I’m excited about an upcoming speaking engagement this fall.  If all works out, I’ll be sharing a number of revival service messages with some of the good folks of North Carolina.  If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of revival, its the week or so out of the year that Southern Baptists are excited about Jesus.  And if there’s a week that you want to be with a bunch of Southern Baptists, its that one.  Having grown up in a small Baptist church, I’m familiar with the concept of revival and have all confidence in the Spirit of God that He will be pleased to use even a flawed vessel like me to bring it about.  Honored to be invited, I’ve been thinking often about this special and precious time we’ll have together in God’s Word, in all-out worship, and in deep-fried fellowship together.  And what a powerful opportunity to again tune my own heart to God’s praises and to His voice regarding revival in my own life.  While I may have been asked to serve the meal, don’t think for one second that I’m not going dig in to it myself! I have a spiral notebook where I’ve been keeping the things God has been nudging me with and impressing on my heart through Scripture, by His Spirit, and in our talks together.  And if that group of His children in NC will still have me after reading this paragraph, then I can’t wait to get there and experience this time together!

I haven’t contributed to my blog for nearly a month now, and while I’d say that’s mostly been blamed on time, I suspect that there’s more to it than that.  (Not to mention “lack of time” gets way too much use and is way too lame to be used that often.  We all know that, but no one likes to admit it.)  I talked with my Dad recently about his regularity in contributing to his blog (check my blogroll to find it).  He’s a bit more systematic than I am.  Scratch that–my Dad’s writing schedule is more like a well-tuned machine while comparatively speaking mine would be more like a pile of dirt.  Nonetheless, I like to think of it as good soil that occasionally springs up a blade or two of green grass now and then.

I’ve been writing for over an hour now and I feel less burdened than I did before.  I suppose whatever else lies just inside the fingertips of my feverishly typing phalanges might just have to wait until next time to emerge.  Until then, whenever that may be, whether sooner or later, good night.